Property Tax Protest; Tulsa County Checks and Balances Questioned
TULSA, Oklahoma - Tulsa County residents pay higher property taxes than two-thirds of homeowners across the country. Have you ever really looked at where those tax dollars go?
One Oklahoma man has and is on a crusade to stop what he says is over-taxation and over-spending.
Don Wyatt is a retired computer engineer, but he has another job and he takes it very seriously.
"My job as a taxpayer is to protest the way these budgets have been produced," said Wyatt.
Wyatt is leading a conservative, citizen driven watchdog group questioning how tax dollars are spent. He's attended countless county meetings and says there is a serious lack of oversight and accountability on the county level. He believes the Tulsa county excise board is not following the law when it decides who gets his hard-earned money.
"Is this the way they treat our dollars?" asked Wyatt. "That it's just theirs to give away in gigantic chunks on the basis of no justification or priority at all?"
We looked over financial statements for four county entities funded by property taxes and found each one has an account with huge amounts of unspent cash. For example, in 2011 Tulsa Technology Center received $155 million dollars in county taxes, an increase from the year before, even though it had $22 million in cash left over from years before.
Tech Center officials say they need that money for operating expenses. But Wyatt believes the county excise board should have lowered the amount of tax dollars Tulsa Tech received.
Wyatt says the excise board has the power to examine the lists of needs and budgets for each county entity asking for tax dollars and decide if each entity needs as much money as it's asking for. But, he says, the Tulsa County excise boards doesn't even look at the budgets. They simply approve them.
In the statute outlining the powers and duties of Oklahoma excise boards, however, it says the board "shall examine the county budgets," and if a reduction in the budget is required, it can send the budget back to be revised.
Wyatt believes many excise board members don't know this.
In fact, a recording Wyatt made at an excise board meeting last year shows at least one board member was confused about this very issue. In the recording you hear the voice of Tulsa County Excise Board member, Ted Kachel.
"I'm asking what authority does the excise board have? Are we just a rubber stamp?" asked Kachel.
Kachel has been on the board, approving taxes, for almost 10 years. In a recent telephone conversation Kachel told us he still doesn't have answers to those questions. He said he tried to hold a hearing on the topic but was outvoted. In his eyes, the issue is dead.
We asked members of the Oklahoma County excise board if they understand their duties. They said their job is not to question budgets, rather it's to approve them based off the county budget board's recommendation.
"Our response to the budget board's report is pretty well perfunctory," said Jim Harrod, Oklahoma County excise board member.
That bothers Wyatt, and he is not alone.
The state legislature just passed a law requiring every excise board member in the state to go through training to better understand their duties. Representative David Brumbaugh authored the bill and says only about a third of Oklahoma excise board members are trained to do their jobs.
"You really need to have the training so we're not levying any more than is necessary for efficient operations in the county," said Brumbaugh.
Tulsa County's Tax Assessor, Ken Yazel, has made this argument for years, saying taxpayers are being abused. He says if the excise board did its job correctly homeowners would see tax bills reduced 15 to 20 percent.
"For tax to go from $300 million 11 years ago to $600 million sometime this past year is grotesque. The taxpayers need to be up in arms," said Yazel.
But other Tulsa County officials say Yazel and Wyatt are wrong. Tulsa and Oklahoma Counties have unique governments that don't allow excise boards to question how county entities spend tax dollars.
"They are to approve the budget and compute the levy. They don't have that same discretion," said John David Luton, Chief of the Civil Division of the Tulsa County District Attorney's Office.
Luton says because Tulsa and Oklahoma Counties have budget boards to oversee budgets, the excise boards in those counties have less power than those in non-budget board counties.
Don Wyatt filed formal protests with Oklahoma's Court of Tax Review. It will be up to the court's three judges to decide who is right. A hearing has been set for August 10th. Our Oklahoma Impact Team will keep you posted.